06 November 2010

Want to Sit on the Same Bench with America?

The US needs to tap into the Indian education market to bail out its broke colleges

BY ANILSadgopal
Member, Presidium, All India Forum for Right to Education

IT IS no mere coincidence that the only school President Obama will be visiting during his Indian trip will be a well-endowed private school in Mumbai. He did not opt to visit any of the 2,000 plus Bombay Municipal Corporation schools. This question may sound trivial to India’s elite who have escaped from the public- funded education system. This, however, would not hold true for President Obama’s country where a widely acceptable public-funded school system has been built up. Ironically, this American model of a Common School System based on Neighbourhood Schools has been itself under attack by the federal policy. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) programme, initiated by President Bush, was designed to weaken the public-funded schools and promote privatisation. Hence, it faced stiff resistance. Yet, President Obama has not only continued with NCLB but has moulded it further in favour of privatisation. The Indian story is no different.

In 1991, following the formal declaration of the policy of globalisation, the Indian government accepted the conditionality of Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) imposed by the US-led World Bank-IMF regime. This required that public expenditure be reduced on education, health and social welfare. In 1990, India spent 4 percent of its GDP on education. During the next two decades, public expenditure, as per SAP dictates, steadily declined to settle around 3.5 percent of the GDP.

The policy of reduced spending was initially tested in the 1990s as part of the World Bank-sponsored District Primary Education Programme in 18 states, covering almost half of India’s districts. From 2000 onwards, these dilutions and distortions were repackaged and ‘marketed’ under a new label called Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). The failure of SSA to provide elementary education (Class I-VIII) to India’s 20 crore children in the 6-14 year age group by the target year of 2010 meant that policymakers rephrased SSA goals downwards and did not undertake a causal analysis to rectify it.

A multi-layered school system designed to exacerbate discrimination ensued; para-teachers to replace qualified, trained and properly paid teachers; school vouchers — an idea pushed by the economist Milton Friedman; public private partnership (PPP) for shifting public funds to private capital, NGOs and religious bodies; tax exemptions and subsidies
(including land) to profit-seeking institutions; supporting commercialisation through student ‘loans’; handing over policymaking to corporates; and a cynically orchestrated media campaign buttressed by internationally funded high-profile NGOs to destroy the credibility of the public-funded education system. The steady loss of credibility prepared the ground for mushrooming of private schools by the late 1990s.

THE ABDICATION by the State of its obligation under the Constitution was camouflaged by the rhetoric of economic growth rates and the Sensex frenzy. The 86th Constitutional Amendment Act (2002) signalled probably the first neo-liberal intervention in the Constitution. The flawed Right to Education Act, 2009, deprived children of their fundamental right to free education of equitable quality. Similar attacks on higher and technical education followed. Profit became a legitimate concept. Higher education 

Hopefully, Obama and Manmohan Singh will discuss Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, rather than sign market oriented agreements became a private good offered to the WTO-GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services). ASSOCHAM’s estimates place the value of the Indian education market at $25 billion, which is predicted to rise to $50 billion by 2015. Tapping this market is one of the central themes of Obama’s delegation of 200 CEOs.
Four higher education Bills are waiting in Parliament to enable foreign universities to invest in our higher education. Another half-a-dozen in the same vein are in the offing. The systematic withdrawal of State funding from higher education in advanced economies, especially the US, has compelled their colleges and universities to fend for themselves. Earlier this year, there were protests in 10 US campuses in over 30 states against tuition fee hikes and funding cuts. The Bills in Parliament will bail out these fund-starved American institutions. This also implies a major distortion of goals, direction and knowledge content in our higher education, which would be dictated by market needs, rather than people’s aspirations.

India has compromised itself by becoming a major global provider of low-cost skilled but subservient ‘foot soldiers’. To be sure, this workforce includes academics such as nuclear scientists, bio-technologists, information technology specialists, economists, political scientists and linguists. These ‘foot soldiers’ reinforce the subjugation, hegemony and greed of global capital. This is why education was envisaged by Mahatma Gandhi as a civilisational question, rather than a utilitarian tool.

Hopefully, President Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will hold consultations on Gandhi’s historic Hind Swaraj (1908), rather than signing market-oriented agreements and laying a ritual floral wreath at Rajghat!

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